Even before the nominations were announced, Claire Danes was presumed to be the frontrunner to win Drama Actress for her performance as a bipolar CIA agent in "Homeland." Indeed, she submitted her most emotional episode, "The Vest," and remains the overwhelming favorite with 8 to 15 odds based on the support of 12 of our 13 Experts, all our Editors and more than 85% of our Users. But is she unbeatable?
Danes faces two previous winners of this category: 2008 and 2009 champ Glenn Close ("Damages") and last year's victor Julianna Margulies ("The Good Wife"). Two previous nominees contend: Kathy Bates ("Harry's Law") and Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men"). And there's one Emmy rookie: Michelle Dockery ("Downton Abbey").
Each has submitted to the Emmy judges the episode that they believe is their best work. Below, we take a look at each, analyzing its strengths and weaknesses.
Kathy Bates, "Harry's Law" ("Onward and Upward")
Bates is nominated for the second year in a row for her role on "Harry's Law." She has lost all eight of her previous Emmy bids for acting as well as one for directing.
Pros: Bates is admired in Hollywood, and David E. Kelley's actors are beloved by the Emmys. She gives an empathetic performance in her episode, including an early scene in which she reminisces about better times with her husband and especially in the last five minutes, when she sings an ode to him and then visits his grave.
Cons: She plays the title character but spends a lot of time off-screen, sharing screentime with a pair of legal subplots in which she plays no part. Also, though Kelley is famous for emotionally showy closing arguments, he doesn't give Bates a grand acting showcase in her courtroom storyline.
Glenn Close, "Damages" ("I've Done Way Too Much For This Girl")
Close is nominated for the fourth time for playing ruthless lawyer Patty Hewes on "Damages." She won her first two bids in 2008 and 2009.
Pros: Therapy scenes are always a good opportunity for an actor to delve into the psychology of a character, and Patty gets an introspective moment or two as she wonders why she feels such a strong connection to her protege-turned-rival Ellen.
Cons: Patty can often be a cold character, but even by those standards this is a very subdued performance, without the usual fireworks we expect.
Claire Danes, "Homeland" ("The Vest")
Danes is nominated for the first time for her role as a CIA operative on "Homeland." She was nominated in this category for "My So-Called Life" in 1995 when she was 16, and more recently she won Movie/Mini Actress for "Temple Grandin" in 2010.
Pros: Her character has a bipolar breakdown which provides no shortage of emotional fireworks, always a benefit in an Emmy submission. As she starts to recover from her mania, she also has subtler, tender moments with her mentor, played by Mandy Patinkin. Her most impactful scene is the very last one, when she is discovered by her boss and relieved of duty: she cries and wails but no one will listen to her and the more she fights, the worse things gets.
Cons: A little mania goes a long way. Judged out of context, will her character's hyper state be a turn-off to voters?
Michelle Dockery, "Downton Abbey" ("Episode 7")
Dockery receives her first nomination for playing brittle, lovelorn Lady Mary on the PBS Masterpiece drama.
Pros: A romantic reel. Mary is often haughty and reserved, but Dockery's episode allows her to play greater vulnerability. As her secrets are revealed, she is fearful, penitent, even expressing humility to her loathsome fiance Carlisle. Her last scene with Matthew, in which he proposes in the snow, is full of feel-good sentiment, which could sway judges.
Cons: Dockery is disadvantaged by being on a series with a large ensemble, which results in her being off-screen more often than her fellow nominees. Also, this episode lacks the showy emoting that often make the difference in an Emmy reel.
Julianna Margulies, "The Good Wife" ("Parenting Made Easy")
After losing this race in an upset in 2010, Margulies won in 2011 and looks to defend her title this year.
Pros: Searching for a child in peril helped Mariska Hargitay ("Law & Order: SVU") win her Emmy in 2006. Patricia Arquette ("Medium") and Sally Field ("Brothers & Sisters") also won for playing devoted mothers. Margulies does the same here and gets the chance to do plenty of emoting: anxiously crying the longer it takes to find her daughter, relieved when her daughter is found, heartbroken when she breaks up with Will Gardner (Josh Charles).
Cons: The episode's court case is fairly low-stakes for a legal drama, unlike Kelley's performers, who often win Emmys for fighting the good fight with grandiose speeches about injustice.
Elisabeth Moss, "Mad Men" ("The Other Woman")
This is Moss's third nomination in this category for playing advertising copywriter Peggy Olson on "Mad Men." She was also nominated in the supporting category in 2010.
Pros: She has a strong closing scene where she says goodbye to Don Draper (Jon Hamm). He takes her hand and kisses it while she holds back tears. Then she leaves his office, collects her things, and smiles as she walks into the elevator. A moment of triumph.